|Apostle St. Paul - El Greco, c.1612|
Saturday, June 30, 2012
(Re)Created to Serve and Give
The text for today is our Epistle, 2 Corinthians 8:1-9, 13-15, which has already been read.
Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God the Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ!
I often marvel at the spiritual insights of children. One week during chapel services I was teaching the preschool children about David the Shepherd Boy as part of a series of lessons on loving our neighbor. I showed the kids two pictures: one of David as a young boy watching over his family’s sheep, and another of David as the grown-up king of the nation of Israel. And then I asked them, “Which one of David’s jobs was more important—shepherd or king?”
Most of them replied predictably: “King!” But one of them stole my thunder. “It depends upon whether or not you’re one of the sheep,” he said. And he was exactly right. Both jobs are important for those who are under their care and influence. For the sheep, the shepherd is going to have much more direct impact. He serves them. They depend upon him for food and water and protection. The king might be able to help provide those things for the people of the nation, but he won’t be too concerned about a few sheep.
Both positions of shepherd and king are God-given vocations—callings or stations in life. God gives the shepherd the privilege and responsibility of caring for the sheep in his flock. God gives the king the responsibility to care for the people in his nation. God gives you each of your various vocations.
God created humans to work and to serve. If you look back at life before sin, you’ll find work and service there. When God created Adam and Eve, it wasn’t for them to lounge around. As He worked to serve them, they were to work by caring for creation and by serving one another.
This is important: before there was sin in the world, there was work and service. To be sure, it was easier back then, as work wouldn’t be bothered by thorns and thistles, crabby customers, unreasonable supervisors, and the like; but even today, God has created you to work and serve in the place He puts you. This is true of everyone, regardless of whether they are a believer or not. Regardless of whether or not they know their vocation is a calling from God.
This means a king has no higher calling than a shepherd. If either one neglects to do his duty, those under his care are going to suffer. A doctor has no higher calling than the woman who cleans and disinfects the operating room. If either one does not take her work seriously patients may get sick and die.
For Christians, this gives a completely different understanding of our daily life and a greater appreciation for all vocations. If you’re a Christian, whatever you do according to God’s will is sanctified, your vocation is holy and given by God for the purpose of serving your neighbor. Work should not be considered a “four-letter word,” but a gift of God.
Now, if work and service are gifts from God, you can bet the devil is going to do his best to ruin those gifts and your perception of them. Look at the popular notion of work today: a job is something you have to do Monday through Friday, so that you can get the days off to do what you really want to do.
But if you’re working for the weekend, you’re not going to see your job as a holy vocation, but rather as a hassle, or boring and unfulfilling. Aren’t you? Instead of rejoicing in the quality of work, you’re more likely to settle for “good enough.” Right? But what would happen if the weekend was a time that refreshed and prepared you to return to that holy vocation you wanted to do? That’s how it is, once you’re set free from the sins of sloth and selfishness. It’s another good reason to repent when you find yourself resenting the prospect of going to work. Remember: God created you to work and serve whatever stage of your life.
We’ll add one more: God created you to give. Giving is part of serving. As God gives us to do to serve others, so He also gives us to give to serve others. Where the Lord gives us abundance, He also gives us the opportunity to support church and charity, to help our neighbor, to assist a relative in need.
Now, if we’re tempted to deny that work is a gift from God, it’s going to be that much easier to deny that giving is a gift from God. It’s all too easy to see giving as an ugly test that comes with salvation, as in, “I have to give so that I can prove I’m not guilty of being greedy or to show I am truly thankful.” But both of those are attempts to motivate with the Law; and Law can cannot properly motivate or empower. It only kills and condemns.
On the one hand, when someone speaks of your “privilege” of giving, you’re always going to wonder if they’re more concerned about their own getting. And sadly, there’s little doubt that many—some scurrilous preachers included—are trying to get you to give so that they can avoid an honest day’s work. On the other hand, there’s also the temptation to believe that giving is only for the wealthy, and that’s not us. But “wealthy” is a relative term: while no one here is in the 1% the “occupy” folks criticize, neither is anyone here dying of starvation.
God created you to give, which is why the devil will do his best to prevent you from giving to others. Beware, too, because greed acts much like sloth. The less you give, the less you want to give; the more you keep, and the more you’ll focus on keeping. And rather than seeing the proper solution is giving more, you’ll be inclined to believe that happiness will be found in gathering more for yourself.
The Macedonians were not like this at all. They were afflicted and poor, yet they continued to experience an “abundance of joy,” which “overflowed in a wealth of generosity.” The word translated “generosity” comes from a root word meaning “single-mindedness of purpose, without any ulterior, self-serving motives,” thus pointing more to the attitude of the giver than the amount given.
This single-minded generous giving was an act of grace—God’s grace in Christ. Generous givers aren’t born that way; such an attitude is a result of being reborn, recreated in the image of Christ. The grace of God that brings salvation also inspires a new life of service that includes unselfish, generous giving.
The generosity of the Macedonians was exhibited in three ways. First, they gave not just as much as they could, but even more than that. Like the widow with her mite, they had given in a way some might consider reckless or imprudent.
Second, no one had pressured them into giving. They had decided “of their own free will” to be so overwhelmingly generous in their offering. They had, in fact, “begged earnestly for the favor of taking part” in “this act of grace.”
And third: “They gave themselves first to the Lord…” The Macedonians gave something much more important than money with their offerings—they gave themselves back to the Lord who had given Himself into death for them.
Paul ties everything connected with giving to the grace that God has given and continues to give His people. God’s grace centers on His gift of Jesus Christ and His redemptive work on our behalf. That grace moves the Christian to be gracious—to freely, gladly give everything, including his material goods, back to the Lord. The offerings of a Christian, then, are much more than bills and coins. They are part of one’s worship, one’s response to God’s grace.
Notice how evangelically Paul encourages the giving of the Corinthians! He doesn’t bargain with them. He doesn’t harangue them. He doesn’t exploit their guilt. He doesn’t threaten them. He doesn’t try to squeeze dead works out of their old Adam. He addresses the new man who loves to do God’s will and welcomes opportunities to express the gratitude of a reborn heart. The offerings a Christian brings are a fruit of faith, the response of a grateful heart to the goodness of God. That is why Paul is careful to say, “I am not commanding you.” He does not want this offering to be given reluctantly or grudgingly, but freely and generously.
As always, Paul points to Jesus, the “grace of our Lord Jesus Christ,” in fact. Paul uses the same terms, “rich” and “poor,” he had been using in talking about the offering of the Macedonians. “Though He was rich, yet for your sakes He became poor so that you by His poverty might become rich.”
It is not difficult to see that the Jesus who Paul holds up as a perfect model of sacrificial giving is much more than just a model. He is first of all a Savior. Through His humbling Himself all the way to death, the Corinthians were now spiritually rich beyond compare. Their sins were forgiven. They were enjoying brand new lives as part of God’s family. An eternity of joy awaited them.
They knew all of that, but like you and me, they needed to remember it daily. If their eyes turned from the Christ, every area of their Christian lives, including their stewardship practices, would soon degenerate into dead works instead of being good works. To be “acts of grace” their offerings must be gifts driven by the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ.
The Christ who became poor to make us rich is the foundation on which all Christian stewardship rests. He is our Savior. He is our motivator. He is our example. And in that order. Saved by His grace, we are then motivated to follow His example, also in the areas of serving and giving. Knowing the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, we learn to be sacrificial and generous in our giving. And in the process, we are surprised to discover joy. One of the mysteries of God’s grace is that joy grows out of unselfish, sacrificial giving. The suggestion is not “Give until it hurts” but “Give until it feels good.” Only those who get beyond giving only what they won’t miss will find that joy.
How much should you give? God doesn’t give us percentages or amounts. Giving is to be an act of grace. As you see needs arise—be it disaster relief after a hurricane, a family that is struggling with economic hardship, or the weekly giving report in the bulletin, you’re created to help and to serve as you are able.
Given all this, what would keep you from giving? What would prevent you from doing what God has created you to do?
It might be fear, fear that if you give you may end up not having enough for yourself. If that is the case, remember to be sensible in what you give and what you keep, but also be careful that fear is not the master who dictates what you do, because fear is a terrible idol to have.
It might be selfishness. You have plans for some luxuries in life, and you’d rather spend your money on those. While luxuries are not intrinsically sinful, take care that selfishness is not defeating your God-given desire to give and to serve.
It might be a restless feeling that you need more than you have because you are not satisfied. But contentment springs not from having much, but from doing what God has given you to do with what He has given you.
It may be that you feel that giving to a certain need is money ill-spent. That may be true in some case, but that’s hardly an excuse to give nowhere, for there will always be plenty of other legitimate needs around.
So God has created us to work and to serve and to give. But with all those temptations out there and that sinful nature within, we’ll never work and serve and give as we ought. As we do our best to do these things, we will likely avoid much of the restless desperation that haunts those who live only for themselves, but our best efforts are still hardly enough to earn eternal life.
That is why, although Paul praises the generosity of the Macedonians, he speaks of this all the much more: “But as you excel in everything—in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in all earnestness, and in our love for you—see that you excel in this act of grace also.” What does Paul mean? He means that while it is good to excel in giving, it is far more important to abound in God’s gift of grace. One can give billions to various causes and perhaps even make the world a better place; but if his sins are not forgiven, he loses all because he has forfeited his soul.
Therefore, dear brothers and sisters in Christ, abound all the more in this act of grace—“the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ.” You do not rejoice today simply in your own working and serving and giving. Those would never be enough to gain you favor with God. No, you rejoice today because of the Lord’s working and serving and giving. You rejoice today, because the Lord who created you to work and serve and give, is recreating you in His own image.
In His love for you, the Lord Jesus Christ took on the poverty of human flesh, then as both God and man, He worked for your eternal life. Jesus served you by living a perfect life to give you the credit for it. And He served you by going to the cross, where He gave up His body to death and shed His blood so that you could be forgiven for all your sins. He joyously, generously, selflessly gave up His life so that you might become rich—rich in grace, rich in faith, and rich because the kingdom of heaven is yours in Christ forever.
And He still gives you grace! In Holy Baptism Jesus gives you forgiveness, salvation, and eternal life. In Holy Communion, Christ gives you His very own body and blood for the forgiveness of your sins and to strengthen you in faith toward God and in fervent love toward one another.
So you rejoice this day. God created you to work and to serve and to give: therefore, your labors each day are what He has given you to do. Where sin sought to destroy those gifts and even rob you of life, Christ died to redeem you, to set you free from sin. Therefore, you are set free to work and to serve and to give. Therefore, your labors each day are holy, because they are sanctified by God.
But all the more, you rejoice in this: while sin still taints your work and your service and your giving, this does not harm your salvation—because your salvation doesn’t depend on your work and your service and your giving. This is an act of grace. Salvation is yours on account of Jesus Christ, because He has worked and served and given and lived and died for you.
Therefore, in whatever you do, you rejoice this day to be God’s holy people, recreated to serve and give freely. For Jesus’ sake you are forgiven for all of your sins. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Now may the peace of God that passes all understanding guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus unto life everlasting. Amen.
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